This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.– Rudyard Kipling, ‘Letters from the East’, 1898.
Last month, Myanmar’s broken justice system threw two Reuters journalists in jail for the crime of ‘obtaining secret information that might be useful to an enemy’. To say that the convictions were unsafe would be a ludicrous understatement. The court heard compelling evidence that the reporters were set up by police after they exposed the deep involvement of security services in one of the many mass killings that have driven out most of the country’s persecuted Rohingya minority. While just one small event in the history of this ancient, troubled land, this latest outrage seems to have marked a turning point.
It is now thirty years since students, monks and civil servants finally rose up in protest against the appalling antics of Burma’s then incumbent military dictatorship. Its leader, the superstitious General Ne Win, had recently cancelled all currency notes not divisible by nine, thereby wiping out life savings and compounding years of economic mismanagement. In the protests that followed, more than 3,000 people were killed and Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of an assassinated national hero and herself a member of the military ruling class, was imprisoned.
Over the following decades, occasional, subdued uprisings would be ruthlessly crushed. Protests from the international community would be muted, reflecting outrage over the treatment of Suu Kyi but little appetite to engage with the broader tragedy of repression and deliberately inflicted poverty. Myself and colleagues working within the country spoke of ‘the government’ but that was a convenient fiction: this was a dictatorship, with the military ruthlessly controlling every aspect of economic, social and public life.
Even the best-informed foreigner finds it difficult to fathom the politics of power in Myanmar. This helps to explain why the fate of Aung Sun Suu Kyi became the preferred barometer of change. Her final release from detention in 2010 and subsequent election to the new-look Myanmar Parliament generated a tide of optimism within and outside the country. From 2012, everything shifted: sanctions were lifted, foreign presidents and prime ministers visited; tourists and investment began to flow in. In 2016, Suu Kyi’s party won enough seats to form government – albeit with the hands of the military remaining firmly on the tiller. And then it all went wrong, or, more accurately, it became clear that not much had ever been made right. Most public and egregious has been the brutal, systematic, state-sanctioned (and sometimes state-led) assault on the benighted Rohingya. The apparent indifference of Aung Sun Suu Kyi on this issue – as well as on other concerns including the steady erosion of press freedom – has been felt as an almost existential betrayal by the many who championed her cause during those long, hopeless decades.
Those with a deeper understanding of Myanmar’s history and its byzantine politics are less surprised. Under the present constitutional arrangements, Suu Kyi has little choice but to maintain a functional relationship with the military, which itself has a strategic interest in fanning Buddhist nationalism. And, as that nationalism deepens, Suu Kyi’s coming to the defence of the widely-reviled Rohingyas would inevitably alienate a core part of her own constituency, including a sizeable proportion of the parliament.
And while good-thinking souls wring their hands and pray for a belated grand gesture from Suu Kyi, the extraordinarily slowly becomes unremarkable. Today, over 800,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar’s Rakhine State languish just over the border in Bangladesh, with no real prospect of safe return. Of those who remain, most are trapped in squalid detention camps, their homes and villages destroyed. An exhaustive UN investigation has confirmed that blame for this carefully orchestrated catastrophe, including the mass rapes and executions of thousands of civilians, lies squarely with the military. But few emerge with clean hands. The unwillingness of ASEAN to become involved in a crisis with economic and security implications that extend well beyond a single member state is a sobering reminder of its self-imposed limitations as a regional player. And the United Nations, along with its international partners, has reason to hang its head in shame. A blistering report published last month detailed the extent and depth of a truly shocking cover-up by the UN, humanitarian agencies and the diplomatic corps in Myanmar, all eager to protect their turf and their relationship with the government, even if it meant selling out those they were claiming to protect.
Figuring out what to do next is the hard part. A good place to start is to acknowledge that some things have indeed changed for the better. The military remains formidable but it is no longer impregnable. The lives of many ordinary citizens have improved in important ways. While liberal democracy seems a long way off, the language of freedom and rights that has seeped into the Myanmar narrative is emboldening those who choose to stand up. It is also requiring the government to justify its actions to an extent that was unimaginable a few years ago. The international community needs to tap into these changes, not stifle them by coddling the government. At a minimum this means halting all funding of the grotesque, inhumane detention camps; it means refusing to be intimidated into avoiding the term ‘Rohingya’; it means demanding freedom of movement and the rights of citizenship for every national as a prerequisite for material support and political legitimacy.
In the longer term, we should try to get over our sentimental attachment to Aung Sun Suu Kyi. She is an important part of the story and can still do much to foster positive change, but she is also a massive distraction from the bigger picture. We should, for example, be worrying about religious-ethnic conflict spilling over Myanmar’s borders into Bangladesh, India and beyond. We should be paying much closer attention to China, which is rapidly ramping up investment in critical infrastructure that will guarantee its long-term access to Myanmar’s sea ports and natural resources. China’s involvement in Myanmar looks set to shape its future in a way that no single person ever could.
Finally, let’s spare a thought for more than a million people who, literally, have nowhere to go.
Anne Gallagher AO has been working in SE Asia, including Myanmar, since 2003